chapter  3
17 Pages

CHARACTERISTICS OF TOWN LIFE

A STUDY of town life in the Middle Ages brings us into contact with one of the most interesting phases of social history, and reveals the manners and modes of thought of that class which is still the backbone of the nation. A small number of towns, founded by Edward I, were free from the beginning, but the majority were hampered in the early stages of their growth by services due to manorial lords. By degrees they shook off these disabilities, and in the later Middle Ages they possessed extensive powers of self-government: a few of them even had their own mints. They were treated with consideration and respect by the Crown: when Henry VII concluded a commercial treaty with Burgundy, he sent the document to all the chief towns in England, so that the mayors might affix the civic seals. The loans so frequently granted by towns to the king afford us a measure of their wealth, and also suggest one of the causes of their growing importance. The absorption of the nobles in warfare was another circumstance which favoured their development. With the single exception of the Cinque Ports, English towns did not form confederations like many of the German and Italian cities, but

each stood apart by itself, and carried on negotiations with its neighbours almost as if it were a separate state. The townsmen were completely taken up with their own affairs, and cared little for public business: their interests were municipal rather than national, and the pros.. perity of their town was of more moment to them than that of the country. To us who have a wider outlook, they may seem terribly narrow and self-centred, but their intense local patriotism was the result of their struggle for liberty, and without it they could not have won the victory. • The towns exercised with great vigour the rights they had gained. Within very vaguely defined limits they had legislative powers. They had no authority to contravene the law of the land, but they could supplement it. For example, when they were proclaiming the royal ordinance against unlawful games, they could add to the list of prohibited amusements some sport of ,vhich they especially disapproved. The Coventry Leet Book, which records the doings of the Leet of that town acting in the capacity of a Town Parliament, shows the subjects with which its by-laws dealt, and its methods of procedure. Like the Parliament at Westminster, the Leet based much of its legislation upon petitions presented to it. l\'Iany ordinances were passed concerning the repair of the roads, the sanitary condition of the town, its preservation against fire, and other precautions necessary for its material welfare. Much thought was devoted to the prevention and punishment of immorality. Sometimes the Leet seems to have been very grandmotherly: on one occasion it forbade any unmarlied

woman, under the age of fifty, to take a house or room by herself, but required her to go into domestic service, on pain of a fine for the first offence and imprisonment for the second. This ordinance was, however, made a little less stringent a few years after it was passed. Its enactment proves that there was an appreciable number of single women amongst the working classes. There were also many regulations dealing with trade-the times and places at which goods might be sold, the weights and measures to be used, the penalties for adulteration of food and beverages, the prices which might be charged, and other details.